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Chapter: Psychology: Motivation and Emotion

Emotion Regulation

Plainly, then, emotions have many functions—preparing the body for action, directing our attention, facilitating social interactions, and more (Levenson, 1999).

Emotion Regulation


Plainly, then, emotions have many functions—preparing the body for action, directing our attention, facilitating social interactions, and more (Levenson, 1999). But emotions can hurt us, too, if they happen at the wrong time or at the wrong intensity level. Indeed, inappropriate emotional responses are involved in many forms of psychopathology  and even many forms of physical illness.


For all these reasons, humans need to experience their emotions, but they also some-times need to regulate their emotions. Emotion regulation means influencing which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience or express them (J. J. Gross, 1998b, 2007). Emotion regulation may involve decreasing, increasing, or simply maintaining experiential, behavioral, or physiological aspects of emotion, depending on our goals. The most common forms of emotion regulation, though, involve efforts at decreasing the experience or behavior associated with anxiety, sadness, and anger (J. J. Gross, Richards, & John, 2006).



Two forms of emotion regulation have received the most attention (J. J. Gross, 2001). The first is called cognitive reappraisal, which occurs when someone tries to decrease her emotional response by changing the meaning a situation has. For example, instead of thinking of a job interview as a matter of life or death, a person might think about the interview as a chance to learn more about the company, to see whether it would be fun to work there. The second kind of emotion regulation is called suppression, which occurs when someone tries to decrease the emotion he shows on his face or in his behavior. For example, instead of bursting into tears upon receiving disappointing news, a person might bite his lip and put on a brave face.

While both strategies can decrease emotional behavior,  reap- praisal  seems  to  be  a  more  effective  way  to  regulate  emotions. In part, this is because someone who suppresses an emotional reac- tion might block the display of emotion but does not make the feel- ings go away (J. J. Gross & Levenson, 1997). In fact, physiologically, suppression leads to even greater sympathetic nervous system acti- vation,  presumably  because  the  individual  must  exert  herself  to keep her emotions from showing (J. J. Gross, 1998a). There is also a cognitive cost to suppression. When participants in an experiment were asked about material that had been presented while they were trying to suppress their emotions, they made more errors than they did when they had not been suppressing their emo-tions (Richards & Gross, 2000). Indeed, when asked to suppress their emotions, par-ticipants performed as badly on later memory tasks as participants who had been encouraged not to pay attention at all to the material that was being presented (Richards & Gross, 2006).


In contrast, reappraisal can make one feel better, and it does not have cognitive or physiological costs (J. J. Gross, 1998a). In one study, researchers showed participants neutral or negative emotion-eliciting slides during an fMRI study (Ochsner et al., 2004; Figure 12.36). In the critical conditions, participants were asked either to view the nega-tive emotion-eliciting slides or to reappraise them by altering their meaning. For exam-ple, a participant might see a picture of women crying in front of a church. Instead of thinking of a funeral scene, the participant might try to think of it as a wedding scene that brought the woman to tears of joy. The reappraisal had many effects. Participants reported feeling less negative emotion when reappraising than they did when just watch-ing the negative slides. Reappraisal also activated the prefrontal regions in the brain, which are associated with other kinds of self-regulation, and decreased activation in the amygdala and other brain regions associated with negative emotion.


The key message from these studies is that different forms of emotion regulation have quite different consequences. This is not to say one should always reappraise or never suppress. Both processes have their place. But it is becoming clear that compared with keeping a stiff upper lip by means of suppression, reappraisal is generally more adaptive.




How do the emotion regulation skills that are so necessary in adulthood develop? We know that children respond emotionally from an early age. From birth, babies cry when they are distressed and cease crying when they are comforted. Newborns and young infants also display facial responses when they are interested, distressed, disgusted, or contented (Izard et al., 1995; Figure 12.37). Smiles appear—to parents’ delight—a bit

later. Fleeting smiles are visible in 1-month-old infants; smiles directed toward other people appear when most infants are 2 or 3 months old. Fear arrives later still. The first clear signs of fear typically emerge only when the child is 6 or 7 months old (Witherington, Campos, & Hertenstein, 2001).


Of course, very young infants show little ability to control their emotions, and so it is up to the caregiver to soothe, distract, or reassure them. Soon, though, infants start showing the rudiments of regulation, so that 6-month-olds, for example, are likely to turn their bodies away from unpleasant stimuli (Mangelsdorf, Shapiro, & Marzolf, 1995). By their first birthday, infants regulate their feelings by rocking themselves, or chewing on objects, or clinging tightly to some beloved toy or blanket.


Children also begin to use display rules—and so begin expressing their emotions in a socially acceptable way—at an early age, so that, for example, 11-month-old American infants are more expressive of their feelings than Chinese babies (Freedman & Freedman, 1969). However, their self-control is limited at this early age, and clear adherence to display rules is usually not evident until the child is age 3 or so (Lewis, Stanger, & Sullivan, 1989)—and even then, children’s attempts at disguising their emo-tions are often unsuccessful. It is clear, though, that children learn relatively early the value of managing one’s expressions—sometimes to gain the response one wants from others, sometimes to protect others, and sometimes to deceive them (Vrij, 2002).


The real progress in emotion regulation, however, comes later, when the child is age 4 or 5. By that age, children seem to understand, for example, that they can diminish their fear by fleeing from, or removing, the scary object; they learn that they can dimin-ish their sadness by seeking out an adult’s aid or by reassuring self-talk (Harris, Guz, Lipian, & Man-Shu, 1985; Lagattuta, Wellman, & Flavell, 1997). These early skills are limited, but gradually grow and strengthen. Where do these skills come from?


Part of the answer lies in the child’s conversational experience, because children’s efforts in emotion regulation are influenced by the examples they have observed and the instructions they have received (R. A. Thompson, 1994, 1998). In fact, these conver-sations convey a range of strategies to children, including distraction (“Try thinking of something happy”), compensation (“Why don’t we get ice cream after the appointment with the doctor?”), and reappraisal (“Dumbledore didn’t really die; it’s just pretend”). Conversations with children about emotion also convey when emotions should or should not be expressed, and the consequences of expressing or not expressing them (Eisenberg, Cumberland, & Spinrad, 1998).


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